Four Marines were charged with murder Thursday in connection with the deaths of 24 men, women and children last year in the Iraqi town of Haditha, and four officers were charged with failing to make accurate reports and thoroughly investigate the deaths.
The Nov. 19, 2005, incident in the insurgent stronghold in the Euphrates River valley is one of several in which U.S. troops face criminal charges in the deaths of Iraqi civilians.
But the Haditha case is regarded as the most serious because of the number of victims and Marines involved, and because the Marine Corps initially said the slain civilians had been caught in the crossfire between insurgents and U.S. forces.
The most serious charges were leveled against a squad leader, Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich, who is accused of killing 12 people and ordering Marines under his command to "shoot first and ask questions later" in a sweep of homes that resulted in six deaths.
The Marines are accused of going on a rampage after a roadside bomb exploded under a Humvee in their convoy, killing Lance Cpl. Miguel Terrazas and injuring two others.
The Marines initially reported that 15 civilians had died in an explosion and eight others had been killed in a gunfight.
Only after Time magazine published a story in March suggesting that the Marine account was false did the military start an investigation.
The criminal inquiry, largely conducted by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, led to the charges announced Thursday.
Military prosecutors said Wuterich showed a wanton disregard for human life by allegedly giving the order to "shoot first and ask questions later" as he and other Marines prepared to storm a house containing several people.
The charges say Marines are required to positively identify targets before opening fire.
The victims in Haditha included several women, six children and an elderly man in a wheelchair.
Wuterich, 26, also was charged with making a false statement in connection with the deaths of four Iraqis who came upon the Marine convoy in a car. He reportedly said the four men had fired on the convoy. Wuterich also is accused of soliciting another Marine to falsely state that the men had been killed by Iraqi soldiers.
The case against the Marines may hinge on the "rules of engagement" given to front-line Marines by their superiors.
Neal Puckett, Wuterich's lawyer, expressed confidence that his client would be cleared. Civilians died in Haditha, he said, but Wuterich acted in accordance with his training.
"Everything he did that day was in an effort to protect his fellow Marines after that [improvised explosive device] went off," Puckett said at a news conference after the charges were announced at Camp Pendleton.
Defense lawyers have said the Marines were following established rules of engagement by tossing fragmentation grenades into homes where insurgents were suspected of hiding, and then opening fire with their M-16s.
Wuterich and three other Marines face charges of unpremeditated murder, which brings a maximum penalty of life in prison.
They are with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division based at Camp Pendleton.
The other Marines charged with murder are Lance Cpl. Stephen B. Tatum, 25; Lance Cpl. Justin L. Sharratt, 22; and Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, 24.
Tatum and Dela Cruz also face lesser charges.
None of the Marines was ordered confined for the upcoming preliminary hearings.
Sharratt's mother, Theresa, said her son was not guilty.
"He said, 'Mom, we followed the rules of engagement,' " she said, adding that her son "still loves being a Marine, but they let him down."
Four Marine officers not at the scene in Haditha were charged with failing to make accurate reports and thoroughly investigate the deaths. They are Lt. Col. Jeffrey R. Chessani, 1st Lt. Andrew A. Grayson, Capt. Lucas M. McConnell and Capt. Randy W. Stone. Grayson was also charged with making a false statement.
After the Time magazine story, then-Marine Commandant Gen. Michael W. Hagee went to Iraq to talk to Marines about the need for restraint and to show respect for civilians and their property.
In an e-mail this week to The Times, Marine Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, the convening authority in the case, said the "allegations of what took place in Haditha are not representative of the magnificent conduct our Marines demonstrate daily in a complex and challenging combat environment."
He said Marines needed to "keep their ethical balance under morally bruising conditions," where enemy fighters often hide behind women and children, adding that Marines showed daily restraint "to preserve the lives of those they are sent to protect and defend, often incurring risk to themselves as they strive to protect the noncombatants on the battlefield."
Under the military system of justice, Mattis will play a large role in the case.
After preliminary hearings, called Article 32 proceedings, he will decide whether the case is strong enough for a court-martial. If there is a conviction by a jury or judge, he can overturn it. And he is the final arbiter of any plea bargains.
In another case, in Hamandiya, where seven Marines and a Navy corpsman were accused of dragging an Iraqi man from his home and killing him, Mattis permitted plea bargains to lesser charges for the four least-experienced of the eight.
He turned down a judge's recommendation that, after their prison sentences, each be given a dishonorable discharge.
Marines receive lectures about the laws of war and the need to protect noncombatants before they leave the U.S. and after they arrive in Iraq. Refresher courses are given periodically.
Even as the Haditha charges were announced, Marines were lectured at Camp Fallouja in Iraq about the laws of war and the rules of engagement.
The latter are rules that instruct Marines when it is appropriate to use deadly force.
Marosi reported from Camp Pendleton and Perry from Fallouja, Iraq